President Obama is going to deliver the commencement address at my alma mater, the University of Michigan, on May first. The last sitting president (Bill Clinton did it six years after he left office) to do so was George H.W. Bush in 1991, the end of my freshman year. Embarrassing confession: when the news broke, some students printed up "We've Got Bush" t-shirts, and I bought one as a souvenir. I still have it. The reference is from a scene in the 1984 movie "Revenge of the Nerds":
Looking back, one of the odd things about it was how little animosity existed toward the president. If there was any protest, it was too small for me to have remembered it. Liberals obviously didn't support the first President Bush, but we did not hate him.
The memory made me wonder, what made 41 so different from 43, who would have set off mass demonstrations if he set foot in Ann Arbor? I'd suggest four differences:
- Bush 41 lacked W's compliant GOP Congress, and posed less of a threat.
- 41 pulled off his war successfully and without massive deception.
- 41 had none of the aggressive anti-intellectualism and cultural divisiveness of his son; he had a low-key style that was captured by Dana Carvey's gentle SNL spoof.
- Most importantly: He was genuinely more moderate, willing to compromise with Democrats to reduce the deficit, pass the Americans With Disabilities Act, and other centrist legislation that reflected the public good and not just paying off his financial or political base.
Basically, Bush was a Republican version of Clinton, not the sort of president you fear or loath. Of course, Republicans did loath Clinton despite his moderation. I think this goes to show that the GOP base can be whipped into a lather of hostility against any Democratic president, whereas the Democratic base requires more serious provocation.